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The largest Swiss Army knife in the world has 87 tools. The problem is that this beast is almost a foot wide and you may gouge out one of your eyes if you try to use it. There's a moral in there somewhere for the LG Arena KM900, which has every feature under the sun but doesn't quite master the art of usability.
Haven't we met before?
The Arena looks very much like a chubbier, smaller first-generation iPhone, especially from the back. It's clearly gunning for the iPhone market, so it's only fair that we compare it to the current touchphone champ.
Like most smart phones, the Arena wipes the floor with the iPhone in terms of features. It seems to have almost everything going, including all we've ever missed in the iPhone: cut and paste, MMS, FM radio, a landscape Qwerty keypad, proper Bluetooth -- you name it.
But the iPhone didn't become an all-conquering champion because of its feature set. It managed to make smart-phone features that have been around for years, like the mobile Web and touchscreen, work effortlessly -- and that's where the Arena falls down.
Smart but slow
Our biggest complaint about touchscreens is usually how slow they are. When you only have a soft keypad to make a call or write a text, any delay between tapping the letter and it appearing on the screen can be frustrating and lead to errors galore.
LG promised speed with the new S-Class user interface, and we did find the home screens responsive, with plenty of scope for customisation. The Arena's on-screen dialling pad is also snappy, but using the keypad to write texts or emails is not so pleasant.
On the sample handset we tested, there was a slight delay between pressing the keys and the letters appearing, both with the alphanumeric keypad in portrait orientation, and the Qwerty keypad in landscape mode. Also, any keys that we tapped during the lag didn't register, so we frequently missed letters out, rendering our messages nonsensical. Going slow and steady is the only way to get an accurate response, which will frustrate experienced texters with lightning-fast thumbs.
Unlike the iPhone, the Arena supports copy and paste within the apps we tested, such as text messaging and the Web browser. But we found that we occasionally struggled to place the cursor accurately. In fact, we had trouble tapping accurately throughout the user interface -- for example, when trying to click links in Web pages.
The Arena has multitouch zoom capability to increase the size of links and make them easier to tap, but we found it unpredictable. A quick zoom gesture often led to a wildly excessive zoom level, and we didn't appreciate the pop-up message that was automatically displayed after each zoom, obscuring the content underneath for a moment.
We did like that the Arena tried to keep us informed with messages, but sometimes they weren't clear. For example, after scheduling automatic updates for the CNET UK RSS feed and podcast, the Arena kindly warned us that we could be risking big data charges. At least we think that's what it said, based on the Yoda-esque message: "Charged when connection for auto updates."
The Arena's podcast-subscription feature is another of the many capabilities that its Apple competitor can't match. But some of the basic features, which we would use the most, feel unpolished. For example, when we fast-forwarded a song in the music player, the icon was wrong: the Arena shows the rewinding image. Also, the music player was sometimes unresponsive, which meant that the controls appeared to stay active for a moment after we stopped pressing them.
We can accept some lag on smart phones that are pushing the envelope of what a small handset can do. But, with the Arena, we were sometimes unsure if our taps had been read by the system at all, which made us feel frustrated.
The Arena sports a 5-megapixel camera, which takes clear shots with good colour balance in bright light. But there's a couple of seconds' delay between the shutter sound and the photo being taken, so we needed patience to get a good snap. One of our test photos looked fine close up, but was completely distorted when viewed in the Cover Flow-like photo gallery.
There's no xenon flash, but the LED photo light is insanely bright, and the camera has a high-ISO setting for low-light situations. It also has a secondary camera for video calling and taking self-portraits.
We loved the 720x480-pixel resolution, 30 frames per second video camera. We took it on a tour of CNET Towers, moving from bright sunlit areas to darker rooms. The results looked clear and the exposure adjusted quickly to lighting changes, but the colours were slightly washed out. Video playback was sharp and smooth on the Arena's 76mm (3-inch) WVGA screen.
Sound and fury
The Arena uses Dolby Mobile, a set of digital audio-processing features that's meant to make your phone's audio output sound less like a monkey playing a kazoo. Dolby says the feature adds 'surround sound' and 'spaciousness' when you're using headphones.
We compared the sound of a lossless WAV file on the Arena to the sound of the same file on the SanDisk Sansa Fuze, one of our favourite dedicated MP3 players, using some beautiful Audio-Technica headphones. We found the Arena produced strong, brassy high frequencies and a more washed-out bass, but the overall sound wasn't unpleasant.
The Arena comes with a built-in FM transmitter, so that you can wirelessly connect it to your car radio, for example. You can also buy a charging cradle that has a TV out for watching your mobile content on a big screen.
The LG Arena KM900 is a scrappy challenger to the iPhone's touchscreen title, but it can't beat the heavyweight when it comes to the secret of its success: usability. We can't fault the Arena's amazing wealth of features, but all those features come at a cost: the user interface sometimes feels slow and the battery life is terrible. Our sample handset didn't even make it through one day of normal use without needing a charge.
If you're looking for a touchscreen phone and you can't live without features such as an FM radio, the Arena is worth a look. But you'll need to be patient to put up with some of its performance issues, like the laggy keypad response.
Edited by Charles Kloet